A film by Philo Bregstein

Klemperer The Last Concert shows exclusive film footage of the rehearsals and its “last” concert on september 26, 1971 in London, in a documentary that the musical heritage of Klemperer on film can be called.

In the early 1970s, filmmaker / writer Philo Bregstein made a unique music-historical document about conductor Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), who was then called the greatest conductor of the twentieth century. He recorded how an important rehearsal of Klemperer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra went, not knowing in advance that this would be the rehearsal of Van Klemperer’s very last concert.
Philo Bregstein has re-edited his movie Otto Klemperer in rehearsal and concert in 2015 and additionally supplemented and enriched it with new recordings, including interviews with people who collaborated with this world-famous conductor. The result is the movie Klemperer The Last Concert.


When in 1971 Otto Klemperer gave me the permission to make a biographical film about his life he also allowed me to film rehearsals and recording sessions in London, a permission the conductor had never extended to anyone before. Thus, in the autumn of 1971, my small film crew and I joined Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Orchestra in their recording sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London as well as the three rehearsals to what would turn out to be Klemperer’s last concert, on September 26, 1971 in the Royal Festival Hall. My initial idea had been to have these film sessions serve as the musical frame for the narrative of the film I was going to make about his life. But the opportunity proved so unique that I decided to use this fascinating musical film footage for a separate documentary dedicated entirely to these rehearsal sessions and the concert itself, forming a diptych, you could say, with the filmed portrait.

As a classical music lover and amateur pianist, I had always been rather critical of the usual music films one sees on television. I agreed with Klemperer’s conception of producing opera: the stage direction should always be in the service of the music. For me this applied also to the filming of musical performances. Too many close-ups of the musicians and sophisticated cinematic effects hamper one’s ability to stay focussed on the music. I have always preferred the approach adopted by the film-makers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, as in their Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). When filming a harpsichord recital by Gustav Leonhardt, in the role of J.S. Bach, they kept the camera static, as if giving it its own seat in the hall like an individual concertgoer.

Rather than conveying musical impressions about Klemperer conducting, I was soon convinced that with the unique opportunity I had been given I should try to create a historical musical document that would go to the core of Klemperer’s art of conducting. This is the reason why, during all three rehearsals, I concentrated on the first movement of Brahms’s Third Symphony, instructing my cameraman to focus on those passages where Klemperer would interrupt the orchestra’s playing and then rehearse them through those passages. As is so often the case, while filming we had to overcome a number of unexpected setbacks. My producer, who had obtained funding from television, insisted we use colour film, which at the time, unlike black & white, wasn’t yet very light sensitive. Moreover, Klemperer had agreed for us to film the rehearsals, but with the condition that there were to be no extra light spots on the orchestra and that there would be no camera within the space of the orchestra – Klemperer did not want anything to interfere with his rehearsals.

Thus on top of the hall’s weak lighting, we had to position ourselves outside the range of the orchestra, which meant using long zoom lenses for close-ups of Klemperer. For the concert, I wasn’t even allowed to bring a camera into the Royal Festival Hall itself: I filmed everything through a small window in one of the side boxes. During the performance I told my cameraman to constantly stay focussed on Klemperer, either in close-up or to fan zoom out a bit and capture him together with the orchestra – after all, the film would be about him as a conductor! Because at the time a 16-mm film magazine could not film more than ten minutes in a row, we had installed a second camera with remote control in a small space high up against the ceiling to serve as substitute whenever the film magazine of the first camera had to be exchanged. Amazingly enough, this rather primitive way of working perfectly suited my vision of filming concerts as if from the static position of one individual listener.

Taken together, these were conditions most professional cameramen would have refused to work under. Fortunately, as it turned out we could use most of the material we had filmed this way. What’s more, the grainy, almost Rembrandt-like texture it has acquired over the years now creates a welcome atmospheric contrast with the super-sharp and somewhat cool digital images we have become used to today. In 1974, when I first edited the rehearsal material for what has now become Klemperer The Last Concert (I called that early attempt Otto Klemperer in Rehearsal and Concert), I could count on the collaboration of Otto Freudenthal, who for years had been Klemperer’s assistant and who had already given me much helpful advice with the biographical film. While editing the rehearsal excerpts of the first movement of Brahms’s Third Symphony I realised again that I was following the right approach: they showed clearly how, by rehearsing certain key passages, Klemperer succeeded unambiguously in conveying to the orchestra his own conception of the symphony, despite his highly advanced age and his increasingly frail health.

For example, we see how he arrives at the precision he wanted from the woodwinds when playing short notes, how often he insists the orchestra give him a real pianissimo, thereby reinforcing the contrast with forte passages and how he demands from the first violins they play more espressivo to intensify the musical line. Typical also is a passage Klemperer wanted to be played with ‘half the strings’, which is not written in the score, but which allowed him to obtain a truly pianissimo violin sound. When two years ago I had the chance of bringing my Klemperer films back to life again, the real challenge proved to be how to turn the rehearsal and concert footage from 1971 into a film I could believe in. As I talked to close friends and consulted colleagues, it became clear that with the original film material I actually had in my possession a musical document of unique historical value: How to bring out its significance for today’s viewers? After a lapse of forty years, I renewed contact with Otto Freudenthal, who in the meantime had built up a reputation for himself as a composer and could look back on an international career as concert pianist.

I also received the generous support of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, who agreed to participate in the project with new film sessions by their Digital Team. What has emerged from the creative interplay thus set in motion is a new film that successfully preserves the essence of the old one as unique musical document but finally gives that document its proper meaningful dimension. In the summer of 2015, working closely together again with Otto Freudenthal and now also with the Philharmonia’s Digital Team, I was able to film – at the Royal Academy of Music in London – the original score of Brahms’s Third Symphony that Klemperer had used for the rehearsals and the concert, and that still carried his personal markings in pencil. During the editing process, together with Freudenthal, I incorporated these passages into the picture to coincide with the relevant rehearsal sections so as, again, to illuminate the way Klemperer worked. Moreover, whether one can read music or not, I think it’s vitally important to be aware of the fact that a musical composition first of all means a written score, that is, notes that a composer has put down on paper and which musicians then have to interpret. Freudenthal told me then how, as Klemperer’s assistant, he would transfer his markings from the conductor’s score to the individual orchestral parts that the musicians found in front of them at the first rehearsal. He also had to collect these parts again at the end of the concert and deliver them back to Klemperer at his Hyde Park hotel suite.

I understand that many famous conductors, from Gustav Mahler to Lorin Maazel, followed the same practice. Again, this shows – what concert audiences are seldom aware of – that successful concerts depend for a good deal on meticulous preparation. In helping me create a bridge between today and back when I first made the film, I benefited from another unique circumstance: by now the original film material was more than forty years old. For Klemperer The Last Concert I could thus eloquently clarify the distance and difference between then and now by simply juxtaposing the original material with the series of new digitally filmed interviews I had done in London in the summer of 2015. Here the current managing director of the Philharmonia Orchestra, David Whelton, traces the main outlines of Klemperer’s turbulent career and recounts the eventful twenty year long history of the conductor’s intensive collaboration with the Phiharmonia, again highlighting Klemperer’s significance for a public unfamiliar with his name.

The Philharmonia’s second cellist, Karen Stephenson, watches the 1974 footage and then makes some moving and surprising comments as she plays a passage from the cello part of Brahms’s Third Symphony she found in the Philharmonia’s library with indications for a “retouche” in the fourth movement, which is exactly what we see Klemperer ask for during the filmed rehearsals. Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor laureate of the Philharmonia, looks back at the year 1969 when, as a young pianist, he played the Second Piano Concerto by Brahms under the then already elderly Klemperer in the Royal Festival Hall. And the musicologist Antony Beaumont, who recently produced a scholarly edition of a large selection of Klemperer’s letters in German, recounts how, as a young “telephone violinist”, he found himself playing under Klemperer for the only time in his life when he was asked to jump in for an indisposed member of the orchestra for both the dress rehearsal and what became Klemperer’s “Last Concert”. Beaumont arrives at a striking analysis of what made Klemperer’s art of conducting so unique. Regretfully, Otto Freudenthal, whose intense collaboration proved so essential for both the old and the new version, died unexpectedly in November 2015. I want to pay homage to him by quoting what he told me when we had finished working together on the editing of the score images in August of last year in Amsterdam: “Klemperer The Last Concert is his Musical Testament.”

Philo Bregstein, August 2016


Klemperer and the New/Philharmonia:“This orchestra is all my joy.” “Ladies and gentlemen, at Dr. Klemperer’s request the New Philharmonia Orchestra will be wearing informal dress for all the concerts which he will be conducting this season.” That was the announcement read out to the audience in the Royal Festival Hall on 26 September 1971 as they were waiting for the concert to start.

Clearly, there wasn’t the slightest hint that this would be Klemperer’s “last concert” – least of all at the BBC, who were expected to broadcast the event but failed to show up. At the final rehearsal Clement Relf, the orchestra’s librarian, had transmitted to the orchestra Klemperer’s idea of “informal” dress: “Short black for the ladies, dark suits for the men.” He let that follow immediately by: “Now can we see if we have an orchestra together that I can get the Old Man?!” For the way he had stood up to him once Relf had earned Klemperer’s respect, even friendship. That there was no thought in Klemperer’s own mind about any “farewell” from the concert platform may be clear from two of the works he planned to include in the 1971–1972 season, Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht and his first-ever Mahler’s Eighth Symphony: “Unsinn, Wahnsinn!” Lotte had interjected (“Nonsense, madness”). Bruckner’s Seventh was scheduled instead for January 1972. He then told EMI he wanted to record the Verdi Requiem, Sibelius’s Fourth and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (the work he had launched his career with in 1906).

In the end, they settled for Mozart’s Die Entfrung aus dem Serail, Bach’s St. John Passion and, tellingly, three works he had recorded with them at the very onset of their collaboration: Brahms’s St. Antony Variations, Mozart’s Serenata Notturna and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. With hindsight, one could perhaps say there were signs that all was not well. Klemperer was a lot frailer than he had looked in May earlier that year when they had done Mahler’s Second Symphony, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Mahler’s death, and his eyesight was deteriorating. Lotte Klemperer in a letter to Paul Dessau two weeks earlier: “His eyes have become worse – studying, reading, all [have become] more difficult. At this moment we have four different and new pairs of glasses.” In the end, Klemperer had to cancel the Bruckner performance for health reasons. Soon after he announced he would no longer conduct in public. Peter Beavan: “It felt as if we were taking our leave of the last of the giants… and not only in the musical sense for even after all his various physical disasters he still towered above his fellow men, a gaunt Lear.” As Mike Ashman relates in the illuminating notes he wrote for the first publication of this concert on CD by Testament (SBT2 1425, 2008): “Talk to any number of players in the Philharmonia/New Philharmonia who worked with Klemperer and you will encounter a rich vein of affection for a musician who, when they came in for their morning rehearsal, they found was ‘already there.’ Comments like ‘I worshipped him – he was a very great man’, ‘he had a great intellect, and a sense of humour, he was a great supporter of individuals’ (he had backed up a respected senior player in a dispute with the orchestra’s management), are typical.”

This then might well be a fruitful place to start when trying to pinpoint what made the relationship between this orchestra and this conductor so unique and, for Klemperer himself, so different from that with the other great European orchestras he conducted after the war: The mutual understanding and the sense of trust and affection that existed between Klemperer and the orchestra, and which over the years unfolded into a way of making music that left “performing” far behind. It was to create one of the richest episodes in British, if not European musical life. Peter Beavan again: “Underlying it all was a foundation of rocklike rhythm and spiritual awareness that, for me at least, lifted a work such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis into a realm far beyond earthly music making.” Gareth Morris, principal flutist with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1948 until 1972, recounting his first concert under Klemperer in 1949: “I felt at once I was in the presence of somebody supremely out of the ordinary who was lost in the music. So, when before the concert I was summoned to his room, I was full of nervous fear that I had not pleased him. He was standing with a score: ‘This note must be very loud. Goodbye, we shall meet at the concert.’ We shook hands and I was his slave.”

In Long Journey we hear him add: “But I must say, at the rehearsal, the first time I saw him, he appeared a terrifying and very strange figure. His tie half undone, because he couldn’t do it with his hands, and he appeared odd. But of course: so sure of the music!” As we can witness in Long Journey and Last Concert, Klemperer’s physical movements prior to his brain tumour operation in 1939 had been forceful and direct, instilling in his players an overriding sense of clarity and purpose. His “odd” appearance after that was marked by the partial paralysis on the left side of his face and of his right arm the operation had left him with. The hip fracture in 1951 and the insertion of a permanent metal pin meant that he would now conduct mainly sitting down. When, in September 1958, he suffered 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns over 15 per cent of his body, disabling him from conducting for a whole year, it put a further strain on his physical abilities. And yet, in the years that followed he created with the Philharmonia/New Philharmonia Orchestra performances of tremendous expressive power and structural command, reaching again a new level of interpretative insight into the “signification of the form of music” (Pierre Boulez). “He let you play your instrument and produce sounds: he gave you time to play,” violinist Gillian Eastwood told Mike Ashman.

After a rehearsal of Strauss’s notoriously difficult Don Juan, she and her desk partner had felt: “That was easy. I could play every note.” Even in older age, “whenever Klemperer got onto the rostrum and his hands got up, the music came to life.” The technical shortcomings, remembered another player, “were purely physical. We used to come in together even in the most tricky spots.” Peter Beavan: “When conducting he used little movement; rather, he presided over the proceedings. He had a little downward, swallow.like movement with his right hand to bring in solo instruments, but in general he let the music flow. Even without much apparent direction, however, there was an immense feeling of inevitability about any of his tempi; yet, somehow there was always time to turn corners.” Another element that may well have served to cement the bond between them and may help explain its lasting strength was Klemperer’s mordant wit.

As Nicolai Gedda sensed, Klemperer’s sardonic sense of humour sprang from a deep sense of irony, and informed his entire character and personality. While Bregstein’s Long Journey goes a long way in showing us why this should be so, what seems less evident is why it should have struck a far deeper chord with an orchestra of largely British players than with their counterparts on the Continent. The fact remains that the Philharmonia quickly took to Klemperer’s style of working and grew to love him for it. In his small but incomparable collection of Klempererisms Peter Beavan – cellist with the Philharmonia already at the time of Klemperer’s first recordings for EMI – has left us a record of “interacting voices” between the Maestro and his orchestra that illustrates this relationship better than anything else: During a recording of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony one of the cellos came in a bar early. Principal cellist Raymond Clark said nothing, but when it happened a second time, he rose in wrath and turning round to the section, delivered a tirade: “Count your bars, always count your bars – never rely on the person next to you, count for yourself, don’t leave it to anyone else! Here, I’ve been counting for 40 years now…” At which point Klemperer leaned down with a sardonic leer and asked: “And how far have you got, Mr. Clark?”

In the same symphony, after a particularly rugged entry, Clark asked: “Dr. Klemperer, will you give us a very clear beat at this point and we will get it right for the first time in musical history.” Another leer, and back came: “In British musical history!” In rehearsals, individual solo passages would often be followed by colleagues shuffling their feet in approval, not always merited, only to be met with a growl from the conductor’s desk: “Success is easy in this orchestra!” During their now legendary recording of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, one of the soloists was not completely satisfied with his own performance and called out to one of Klemperer’s entourage: “Please, may I sing it again?” This was conveyed to the Maestro, who growled: “Why? It might get worse.” To which the singer replied: “Ah, but it might get better.” Only to be crushed by: “We can’t wait that long!” Clem Relf formed no exception. Klemperer was always very conscious about his string parts being bowed and marked with his favourite “Come out” in red under salient passages, and Clem always helped him. As he told Beavan, one morning early in the week preceding a concert Clem was greeted with: “Mr. Relf, you will help me mark the parts for the next concert?” “Of course, Dr. Klemperer; when would you like?” “Saturday afternoon, Mr. Relf.” Clem’s face fell, and Klemperer asked: “What is the matter, Mr. Relf – you do not like Saturday afternoon?” “Well, Dr. Klemperer, I usually go to a football match on Saturday afternoon.” This was too much for Klemperer and he just gave a derisive snort.

However, Friday came and as Clem was leaving the Hall Dr. Klemperer called out: “Mr. Relf, you need not come tomorrow afternoon; I have marked the parts myself.” “Oh, thank you, Dr. Klemperer.” But as he reached the exit, a stentorian shout followed him: “And I hope they lose!” When asked by John Freeman in his 1960 BBC interview whether he enjoyed conducting in London with the Philharmonia, Klemperer, then 75 years old, immediately responded: “Oh yes, very much! The orchestra is… all my joy!” Friedman: “And they are very good.” Klemperer: “Very good!” Then adds, clearly relishing the fact of what he is going to say: “And they are very good to me!” A whole decade of glorious performances was yet to follow, of which the many recordings that we have – studio as well as “live” – form an enduring testimony. It was to culminate in the flowering of what one rightly may call Klemperer’s “late style”. Klemperer’s “Late Style” Otto Klemperer was a conductor of extremes. His music reflected his bipolar personality: in Budapest (1948) he forced an impossibly fast tempo on his Don Giovanni for his champagne aria, in Sydney (1950) he conducted the fastest, in London (1971) the slowest Mahler Second Symphony of all time. Then, in his later recordings, starting around 1967, everything becomes quieter.

More than ever before, Klemperer’s main pre-occupation remains musical structure, but now no longer with the harshness so typical of the 1950’s, instead a sometimes almost lyrical gentleness makes itself felt. Might one talk here of the wisdom of old age? This new element is especially traceable in live recordings. Everything flows, but never loses purpose. On the contrary: the musical structure reveals itself with ever greater clarity. When, in the 1920’s, Ernst Bloch spoke of an energetic “precise burning” (“Nirgends brennen wir genauer”, i.e., “nowhere do we burn more precisely”), by which he meant a synthesis between intellect and passionate emotion, in the late performances from his Indian Summer we detect rather a synthesis between crystal clear structure and lyrical serenity – which however has nothing to do with “softness”. What does keep coming through also here is the relentless nature of Klemperer’s creative will. When heard in this way, the sometimes extremely slow tempi are found to generate a particularly powerful tension. The music no longer sounds “slow”, but obtains greater transparency and becomes – one hesitates to say it – more “affectionate”, while underpinned as always by Klemperer’s scrupulously enforced discipline and his fixation with the smallest musical detail. Ample proof of this we find in the rehearsal excerpts Bregstein captured in his Last Concert fi lm. Of course, in live recordings not everything always comes out perfect. Least of all with Klemperer. It didn’t bother him much when a horn happened to squeak or there was a temporary loss in ensemble. This could lead to downright awkward situations, as happened for example in 1968 during the concert performance of The Flying Dutchman: Peter Heyworth reports that “at moments the orchestral ensemble was precarious, and in at least one passage disaster was only narrowly averted.” He then immediately adds: “But such imperfections were of little account” before describing a performance of overwhelming power. In the present recording of his final concert we encounter similar critical moments, in particular at the beginning of the King Stephen Overture and the Brahms symphony.

No wonder, with a conductor who is here 86 years old and so obviously hampered by the many medical handicaps inflicted upon him through the years that, when seeing him for the very first time on fi lm, one inevitably needs a few moments to adjust. In spite of all that, even in these later years when, as Peter Beavan tells us, “during rehearsals we would sometimes wonder how the performance could possibly hold together, Klemperer would summon up incredible reserves of concentration and at the concert there would be once again the familiar feeling of power and overall command.” Antony Beaumont, who had joined the second violins for the concert as substitute player, gives a striking description towards the end of Last Concert (54:15): There was something – as I say, I can’t put it into words either – but there was something I never experienced with any other conductor at any other time, something that was telling me, and the whole orchestra, what he wanted. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was his way of saying: ‘This is what the music wants’. As I say, he was working as a kind of vessel, an intermediary between whatever it is that makes this music what it is, putting his actual willpower in some kind of invisible energy.

When listening to the performance on the present audio recording, one should in no way have in mind the firebrand that Klemperer was in the 1950s or even think of his years at the Berlin Kroll Opera, in Los Angeles or Budapest. As long as one remains stuck on “early” Klemperer, one will fail to recognise what emerges as new in his “late” interpretations. Neither should one refer to his late studio recordings, which tend to lack the vibrancy that marks the live concert recordings, something one cannot help noticing with especially the slow tempi, which the studio seemed to rob of momentum. As both the Long Journey and the Last Concert films illustrate, Klemperer clearly felt unhappy in the recording studio and seems to almost resent it when producers interrupt him. When at one point someone explained to him the technical advantages of tape splicing, he turned to his daughter Lotte and said, horrified: “Lotte, so ein Schwindel!” Fortunately, many live recordings of Klemperer concerts have survived from all periods of his life: Starting with a few snippets from a Berlin radio concert (1932), to Los Angeles (1934), via the main stations of his career during the 1940’s and 1950’s (Budapest, Amsterdam, Cologne), till the many recordings that date from the 1960s, and, from 1964 onwards, those with the New Philharmonia, while numerous further guest appearances with prominent orchestras in Europe and the USA, or even less famous ones, like the Jerusalem Radio Orchestra in Israel, have also survived (for full details, see www.archiphon.de). In all of these one hears the resounding effect of how “late” Klemperer gives his vibrant creative aura free rein.

In his introducture notes to the Last Concert Philo Bregstein vividly describes how far from optimal the conditions were for his film team had to work with. Similarly unfavourable were the conditions for the audio recording he made during the concert. He was allowed to film only the first movement of the Brahms symphony. Fortunately, he kept his tape recorder running from beginning till end! Apparently, there was no up-to-date tape deck on hand – the recording was done in mono. It has been impossible to locate the master tape, which Bregstein transferred at the time to the Klemperer Archive in the Library of Congress. For the production of the present audio recording we worked with copies of the master tapes that ran at 19 cm/s and had been recorded on one track only. The tapes have been re-mastered using an AEG M-15 tape machine via a Benchmark A/D converter (adc1) and an interface by RME (Fireface 400) in high resolution WAV data (96 kHz/24 bit).

Dick Bruggeman & Werner Unger